Revisiting the Topic of Workplace Accommodations
In perusing the latest legal news, you may have glossed over a recent 9th Circuit decision involving government religious accommodation in the workplace. Even though the case involves a state employer, it might be worth a few minutes for private employers to take a look at the facts and ruling in Bolden-Hardge v. Office of the California State Controller, et al. (No. 21-15660, Apr. 3, 2023) for some potential takeaways.
The story begins when Brianna Bolden-Hardge was hired by the Franchise Tax Board (FTB) in 2016. The next year she was offered a position with the State Controller’s Office (SCO). Although the FTB didn’t originally require it, the SCO compelled her to sign a loyalty oath to the California Constitution as a condition of her new employment. When Bolden-Hardge, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, refused to sign the loyalty oath without an addendum accommodation declaring her primary loyalty to God with a joint acknowledgment to also uphold the Constitution, the SCO denied her request and retracted the job offer. The FTB in turn reinstated her employment so long as she would sign a loyalty oath. The FTB, however, allowed her to insert her requested addendum as an accommodation of her religious beliefs.
Bolden-Hardge filed suit against the SCO for violation of her FEHA and federal Title VII rights claiming she was discriminated against for her religious beliefs and was denied a religious accommodation. The trial court sided with the state, noting that the accommodation would require SCO itself to violate the Constitution. The Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court decision acknowledging that the loyalty oath forced Bolden-Hardge to swear primary allegiance to the government over God thereby forcing her to choose between her religion and her employment even if not expressly stated in the oath. One of the judges on the panel summed it up by stating that the U.S. Supreme Court has cautioned against “second-guessing the reasonableness” of an individual’s assertion that a requirement burdens her religious beliefs. “With these principles in mind, we do not interrogate the reasonableness of Bolden-Hardge’s beliefs and instead focus our inquiry on whether she has alleged an actual conflict. We hold that she has done so.”
Although the above ruling clearly dealt with a government entity and its refusal to accommodate the religious beliefs of an employee, there are some takeaways here for private employers.
· FEHA and Title VII violations can be sparked due to conflicts between job requirements and religious beliefs (the same can be true for disability issues);
· Employers should be mindful of any and all reasonable accommodations to avoid exposure to liability;
· Engaging in interactive communication and sincere attempts to accommodate can go a long way in preventing misunderstandings;
· If an accommodation is requested, employers should always seek legal advice to avoid mistakes along the way – Rosasco Law Group, APC can help!